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 Death and Dying in American Culture 



Franz Erhard, Leipzig University

"Pragmatism and New Societies: Sociological Remarks on Dealing with Death in a Secular World"

Death confronts society with the problem of having to make sense of something that is ‘out of reach.’ Death does not occur in life, it is rather the sharp ending of it. Therefore, no one can experience how it is to be dead and gain empirical knowledge about it. Death remains a space we cannot enter, but also one that lies broadly before us.

At the same time, the thematisation and coping with this problem are one of the earliest attainments of society. Usually this is mentioned in one breath with religion, which provides adequate patterns of interpretation in order to attach meaning to death. Yet, one must take into account that in our highly secularized society not all social groups share religious notions and some even reject them. For them, the death problem cannot be solved by religion. On the basis of a group-discussion, I show what one possible alternative could be like: In contrast to religious interpretations, the reconstruction of these perspectives will reveal a pragmatic and scientific approach to death, one that regards death only in reference to problems and worries about everyday life.

Following these findings, I argue that the contents of dealing with the problem of death are determined by or at least strongly influenced by the experiences made in this world. In ‘traditional societies’ the integration of those experiences is managed by mainly religious patterns and fixed life courses. However, modern individuals though do not have such securities. If they want to make sense of death, they have to integrate a wide range of religious traditions, scientific mainstream knowledge, and their differing biographical experiences.


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